My neighborhood was like any other suburb in Chicago. We had sidewalks, tree-lined streets, and backyards that seemed to run into each other creating a land to explore that seemed to have no boundaries. Lots of kids lived in my neighborhood. The older kids who lived on our block were intimidating and aloof. We little kids kept our distance but often watched them with fascination. They actually disappeared for hours at a time, to return home for dinner or to sleep. We wondered where they went and what they could possibly be doing. One time a group of older boys told me that I could see their clubhouse if I took off my pants. I ran away as fast as I could, and my fascination then felt like a cold hard knot of fear every time I saw an older boy.
I had only one true friend in those early years. His name was Jimmy, and he lived in the house that backed up to our backyard. Jimmy’s mother was divorced, and they lived with Jimmy’s grandparents. I never understood what that meant, but sensed it was not something to talk about.
Jimmy and I were inseparable. As soon as breakfast would end, we’d meet outside to play all day, interrupted only by lunch and naps. In the winters we bundled up, built snow forts, made snow angels, built giants with carrot noses and charcoal eyes. Jimmy’s grandmother made us snow cream after freshly fallen snow, and we couldn’t imagine anything tasting better.
While winters were fun, summers were even better. Long hours outside meant roller-skating, bike riding, and catching lightening bugs way into the night. Great moments surprised us and provided special treasures. When the street cleaner came and we found sticks from the giant brushes, we tucked them away in our special stashes. Some nights the bug spraying truck came, and covering our noses and eyes, we ran into our houses in terror. Jimmy had an apple tree. We loved to climb that tree, and every time, after Jimmy jumped down, I cried in fear, terrified to move. Jimmy regularly got his grandfather to come out to get me down. We especially loved mulberry season and raided the tree in a neighbor’s yard. When caught, we ran and laughed wildly with purple mouths and sticky hands. We would camp on his porch or mine all night long, our imaginations taking us to every corner of the earth. Jimmy said he wanted to be a clown and was going to go to clown college some day. I hope he did. He always made me laugh.
Jimmy and I weren’t perfect kids. Sometimes our mischievous sides turned dark and we became tormentors. One time we raided his grandfather’s garage, found an old bucket, and loaded it with every kind of liquid we could find in his garage. We added water, berries, worms, and other unknown substances and strategically positioned ourselves at my swing set. This location was a special draw to younger kids, and Jimmy and I enjoyed antagonizing them. On that day we stirred our murky poison and told every kid that they could join our club if they drank our potion. No one did. A few nights later we were awakened by huge flames and fire trucks. The garage was burning. Jimmy and I decided that poisoning kids probably wasn’t a good idea after all.
Even though we thought we were tough, scarier kids were nearby. Jimmy and I took care of each other when Bobby Jacobson delighted in smashing baby birds with bricks. When one girl down the street was hit by a car and died, Jimmy and I regularly stood and stared at her house with curtains that never again opened. When word spread that Kathy, the block bully, was going to beat me up, crowds gathered, and Jimmy hid me on his porch.
One summer Jimmy and I decided to dig to China. Every morning we met to dig and continued to dig well into the night. That summer things changed. We couldn’t camp out on Jimmy’s porch. We couldn’t play in our wading pool. We didn’t know why. We just kept digging to China. At the end of the summer Jimmy’s grandfather said we had to stop. The next month he put a shrub in our hole and covered it with mulch. My mother said that Jimmy’s mother was “common.” Jimmy and I never played together again, but that summer we saw China. And for the first time I knew that there was a world beyond my backyard.